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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Bel Canto II

We can’t leave the subject of Lauri Volpi and Bel Canto without looking a little further at the man and his extraordinary art. Thanks to TrovadorManrique, there is an excellent video on Youtube of Franco Corelli talking about Lauri Volpi, with whom he studied. This is exactly the kind of first-hand information, from one distinguished professional to another, that has great historical value.

What a document this is! Corelli (whom I adore, incidentally) makes many points, but several strike me particularly. The first is when he reiterates, in a very clear way, something that I have always maintained; that Lauri Volpi’s was first and foremost a theatrical voice. This is much more important than might appear at first, because it explains things about his particular technique. His training was essentially bel canto—this we know. He was a lifelong exponent of the method, even though he rejected the falsetto as a voice appropriate for the stage in the 20th century. Gigli could use falsetto a lot (and he did) because he made so many recordings and films. It works perfectly there, because it does not have to fill a theater. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me in this video. Corelli relates a comment from another person, who said that L-V’s voice was the only one to ever make its vibrations felt in the furthest reaches of the upper balcony. And then he adds, “not the voice, but the vibrations of the voice.
Some viewers might find this confusing, but as an avocational harpsichord builder, I knew immediately what he was talking about! I had the sad experience, a few years back, of hearing the Academy of Ancient Music perform, using a harpsichord that I knew well, a unique Hubbard dual-manual built locally and rented for the evening. I had once contemplated buying this harpsichord, and had played a few scales and passages on it, so I knew exactly what it sounded like, and I can assure you that as a strumento da camera it was magnificent. On stage, however, it disappointed. The theater was not all that large—perhaps 700—but the poor harpsichord was lost in it. From where I sat, in the first balcony, it sounded like nothing quite so much as a sack of 10-penny nails being unceremoniously dumped on the stage floor. This is a common experience. The lovely and ancient harpsichord just doesn’t make it as a concert instrument in a large modern-day hall.

This, in the realm of the human voice, is what Corelli is talking about. You can hear many singers’ voices in the last row, but not the vibrations of their voice; which is to say not the overtones. And the uniqueness of L-V’s voice, according to Corelli, was that the overtones of his voice did reach the last row. Some sounds survive distance with the fullness of their amplitud, and some do not. I am reminded of something Lily Pons once said. A colleague, concerned that he could not hear her voice (she was a tiny creature, less than 5 feet tall) mentioned this fact to her. She replied, “don’t worry, you may not hear me on stage, but they will hear me in the audience.” And she was right. It is the higher frequencies of the voice that account for this. This is what served Lauri Volpi and his bel canto technique so well, and it also served Pons. Among those not well served by this phenomenon are heroic and dramatic singers who cover to the point of clamping down on their voices, and even though they may be booming at close range, they often do not carry as well in the theater as one might have expected, because many of the higher resonances are missing. Someone might ask why the higher resonances of a harpsichord don’t carry. The answer is that they do, but unfortunately the higher resonances of copper overlap with those of steel! Hence the metallic clang. We cannot compare metals with the soft human flesh of vocal chords.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bel Canto I

I am now and have always been an unapologetic bel canto enthusiast. Opera has lost a lot in the last century, but there are, mercifully, signs out there of a revival. If you follow the trajectory of classical singing, especially high-voice male singing, to start with a prominent example, it becomes immediately apparent that much has changed in 150 years. There is no question that in its beginnings, high-voice male singing was essentially the art of falsetto and developed falsetto, commonly called head voice. In Manuel Garcia’s L’Art du Chant (1856), possibly the greatest book on vocal training ever written, he states it clearly and unequivocally: the tenor voice is built upon the falsetto. Thence to the head voice, over time, but he makes it clear that the whole process is from the top down. While some might say, “Oh well, of course,” in fact many do not believe it, especially some teachers and voice coaches (we don’t need to mention names, you probably know them) who will have the hapless 21 year old student forcing his larynx down into his shoes, in an attempt to develop a kind of steely, dramatic sound with an artificially high (and very temporary) top. Rarely does the poor youngster have a future. His voice will sound enormous to him (largely via bone conduction) and often impressive to those standing close by, but nine times out of ten it will stagger over the footlights and die about twenty rows out. Worse, our young tenor will have set in motion a process of strain on the voice that will at first leave him sounding impressive on certain nights but curiously weak and winded on others, when the voice will not respond. Eventually, there will be a wobble, and it’s addio, career. This has happened too frequently.

Fortunately, the tradition was never completely lost. There were at least a few good tenors who studied in the early 20th century and internalized both the García method and the example of still living tenors from an earlier age, such as Fernando de Lucía, who was Georges Thill’s teacher. The most prominent 20th-century exponent of this glorious tradition is certainly Giacomo Lauri Volpi, a well-educated, intelligent, articulate (and, I would add, almost uniquely strong-willed) tenor who proceeded to set a very high standard for bel canto tenor singing; one not yet reached by another tenor. For any who do not know it, I offer the following. Please notice how the announcer refers to the fact that Toscanini said of Lauri Volpi that he possessed “la piu bella voce del mondo.”

If your ears have recovered yet from that D at the end, I’m sure you will see what I am talking about. This voice was not only beautiful, with its expressive range from pianissimo (“Dillo ancor…”) to that window-shattering high D, it was extraordinarialy powerful. This is important because there are many who equate bel canto singing with the tenore di grazia. While this may be the case, it is not necessarily the case, witness Lauri Volpi.

Now hear the master himself give a little singing lesson. Crank up the sound, this is a very old Italian Vitaphone recording:

Every aspiring tenor should be required to memorize this. The movement over the passagio is smooth as silk—the golden line through the entire upper register is unbroken. What magnificent singing!